2) John Francis Coyle: 1916 – To the Western Front

Having arrived at Alexandria, Egypt (aboard the HMT “Tunisia”), from Mudros Harbour on the 2nd of January, 1916, we have to believe that the boys (now men) of Gallipoli were looking for some other kind of action. Consequently John Coyle (like all the other Anzacs) was out to party and was marked as AWOL “absent without leave” often during his time in Egypt. Succumbing to the exotic delights of Cairo, and a drink or two, is on just about every soldiers record of the time.

There is very little other detail in the war records of the five months spent between the main camps in Egypt. The Australian Army (AIF) was being reworked into larger Divisions in preparation for the battles ahead against the German Army on the Western Front. The 13th Battalion was amalgamated into the 45th Battalion – to then be comprised of the Gallipoli veterans, newly arrived reinforcements and those expected to join the ranks in France later on.

Private Edward Lynch in his book “Somme Mud” describes his part in the First World War from that perspective – having joined the 45th in France at the end of 1916. The first of the AIF was sent off in March with the rest to follow in the first week of June, 1916. These first  ANZACs probably had no idea of what kind of hell they faced in the main European war fields.

troops on the march - Egypt

 JFC sailed from Alexandria, Egypt with the 45th Battalion on the “Kinfauns Castle” – which was described as “a very comfortable ship”.  The company embarked on the 2nd June, 1916 and arrived in Marseilles, souther France on the 8th.

On the day after that the 45th Batt left by train for a 60 hour journey through France stopping only for hot water & basic supplies at various towns. “The journey was a long one, the troops being in the train for between sixty and seventy hours; but its tediousness was relieved by the beauty of the French countryside, which was all the more welcome to men who had spent so many months on the edge of the desert.”

Arriving at BAILLEUL on the 11th of June they were billeted in barns and proceeded to complete further training & receive lectures on bayonet fighting, grenade attacks, defensive measures against gas attacks, etc. It is assumed they were kept busy with preparations as they were soon to relieve the British and 1st Anzacs already in action and suffering badly on the Somme battlefields.

The daily records (War Diary) for the 45th Battalion do not list any details when stationed in BAILLEUL.  In the next few days after that, his record states that John Coyle was transferred to the 12th Machine Gun Company (stationed in the same area- having also travelled from Egypt) – effective from the 1st July, 1916.

[The 12th Machine Gun Company served as an adjunct to the 12th Brigade, supporting the actions on the front and in reserve, of the 45th, 46th, 47th & 48th Battalions. The official War Diary of the 12th MG Coy is sometimes a little dense & obscure. There is more information to be gained within the books and recollections of members of the above Battalions.]

The whole of the 4th Division was swiftly moved into action from late July to early August in the POZIERES region. The fresh men knew only from accounts that they were marching into a hell of destructive bombardment and the horror of shrapnel and gas shelling.

There is a degree of uncertainty of John Coyle’s actual movements in the next few weeks as most entries in his own personal records state that what occurred was “in the field”. What is recorded is that John was sent to hospital suffering exhaustion from the 13th to the 20th of August, 1916. This is was probably from “intensive shelling” and heavy defense operations by the machine gunners in the area near POZIERES.

In “In the Footsteps of Private Lynch” (about the “Somme Mud” author & soldier) Will Davies describes how the company spread out to hold a front of 550 metres, and “for the following ten days, the 45th Battalion remained in the frontline or the support trenches close to Pozieres.”

Will Davies makes the statement that “they came under such heavy and sustained bombardment and counter-attacks from the Germans it was a wonder anyone survived. They successfully repulsed the German counter attacks, but their time in the line took a terrible toll physically and mentally on the men, many of who were Gallipoli veterans”.

The 12th Machine Gun Company fell back to BERTEAUCOURT (les Dames) after 3 weeks of heavy fighting on the 20th of August and it would look like Coyley joined them there. Soon after this the Company marched away from the fighting to HERISSART to gain supplies and take a well-earned break from the front. It would appear that during this time our esteemed forebear had lost his bearings.

The official record has John Francis Coyle listed as AWOL from 1.30pm on the 23rd to noon on the 25th August, 1916. He rejoined his company only to face confinement and marched to a Court Martial hearing in VANDENCOURT.  In his own account, in the subsequent court martial papers, John Coyle is truthful and very embarrassed. He had woken drunk and missed the troop march-out. He then proceeded to hitch a ride on a lorry to catch-up but went in the wrong direction!

His two day absence would have a bearing on his record until addressed in late 1918 and then mitigated by his record, medals achieved and by his now proven “gallantry in the field”. We must be very grateful that, unlike the English and the French, our military commanders had the sense & reason not to shoot their own men for such infractions.

The records for the 12th Machine Gunners, and the Battalions that they travelled with, account for their part in many major battles – all during the remainder of 1916. The details of these are being collated now and will be published at a later time.

Photograph of th emascot of the 12th Maching gun Coy. This boy is a French refugee and wa picked up by some of the boys and given refuge in this Coy for eighteen months.A young French refugee, adopted as the mascot of the 12th MG Company

John Francis Coyle, like so many of his generation was very reluctant to discuss his part in this war. Only when prodded by his son, Denis (Brother Luke), did he record some details of what actions enable him to be awarded the medals for his bravery.

The accounts in the next few chapters will be mostly from his reminiscences.

It is best to leave Lieutenant John Coyle to tell his own magnificent story.

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